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What is prayer?

What is Prayer Top image

Prayer is a vital part of Christian spirituality and church life.

Jesus taught and modelled it, the early church practiced it, and every major theologian or Christian leader over the past two millennia has given it prominence.

On the 22nd April, 2017 hundreds of thousands of Christians converged on a farm just outside Bloemfontein to pray for the nation of South Africa. I wrote and spoke about this at the time, so if you are interested in reading about it click HERE, or listening to it, HERE, but in essense I believe that this was a pivotal moment, but why do I believe this? An estimated one million people attended this epic prayer meeting, but why did they go?

Does prayer release some unseen power when we pray, a power that is amplified by mass prayer?
It seems to me that a good number of Christians believe this otherwise why would they try to get so many people praying for their sick loved ones, as happens regularly through social media and prayer chains.

On the other hand, it seems that an equal number of Christians place little importance on prayer and almost none on corporate (group) prayer. How many people regularly attend the weekly prayer meeting at your church? Oh, your church does not have a weekly prayer meeting?

I want to briefly examine what I think are the underlying causes for these two opposite approaches to prayer and then sketch out what prayer is and why we should pray.


Firstly, I hold that we should lay much of the prayerlessness of today’s Christians at the feet of Reformed theology. Ouch! Let me explain why I think this before you bend to pick up a stone to throw at me. Oh, and I must explain why I use the word ‘Reformed’. Hyper-Calvinism is the real culprit, but so many of today’s resurgent Calvinists label themselves as ‘Reformed’ that I am choosing to use that label to describe the problem group. (You can read about Calvanism and Reformed theology HERE or listen to the TruthTalk on them HERE).

Here are quotes from three reasonably representative Reformed sources. I am aware that several major Reformed theologians, such as Wynne Grudem, would not fully endorse these views, yet I do think that these quotes represent the problematic core teaching.

The first quote is from an article titled ‘A theology of biblical prayer’ appearing on ‘The Reformed Collective’ site: ‘Prayer is a means through which God acts. It has been established in Scripture that prayers, which conform to the will of God, are used by God to accomplish the most important thing all creation serves –– the will of God’.

The second quote presents this idea in a similar fashion. It is from an article on the ‘Desiring God’ site under the heading of ‘God Uses Means’. John Piper writes; ‘ In other words, just as God will see to it that his Word is proclaimed as a means to saving the elect, so he will see to it that all those prayers are prayed which he has promised to respond to’.

Let me quote a third source and then I will unpack what lies behind these beliefs and the effect they have on Christians today. Millard Erikson, the well-respected Reformed theologian writes in his ‘Christian Theology’; ‘When God wills the end (in these cases, healing), he also wills the means (which includes a request to be healed, which in turn presupposes faith). That is, God wills the healing in part by willing that those in need should bring their entreaties. Thus, prayer does not change what he has purposed to do. It is the means by which he accomplishes his end. It is vital, then, that a prayer be uttered, for without it the desired result will not come to pass’.

These strange circular formulations stem from the underlying conviction that God has predetermined everything that happens, be it salvation or healing, or even the words I think I am choosing to write at this very moment. Prayer poses a particular problem for anyone who believes in ‘meticulous determinism’. Why is it then necessary at all, and more particularly, why does God instruct us to pray? They have no coherent answer to this and have to resort to teaching that prayer is simply a means God uses to achieve His predetermined purposes. This all dissolves into a muddy puddle of confusion when men like Dr Erikson resort to statements like, ‘It is vital, then, that a prayer be uttered, for without it the desired result will not come to pass’. How contradictory is that!?

Now, despite the many protestations by Reformed folk, it is hard to believe that, on this basis, prayer is important. In terms of Reformed teaching, God will assure that His will be done whether I like it or not and if I don’t pray as ‘a means’ to His goal achievement, then it simply means that He has ordained someone else to pray.

The power of prayer

In diametric opposition to the Reformed view is the belief that our prayers have the power to achieve results. In this camp, the focus is usually on how our prayers either release a spiritual power that changes things in the material realm, or manipulate God to our ends.

Here are two quotes from a book called Unleashing the Power of Prayer, which contains 30 addresses to The International Prayer Assembly for World Evangelism that met in Seoul in 1984. I have used them in my book ‘Prayer, Power, and Proclamation (which you can download for free HERE if you would like to), but they are worth repeating here.

“Praying is how you get things done. It’s not what you do, or your preparation; it is prayer itself that is God’s method of getting things done.”,and “Prayer releases the power and the authority of God. The Bible tells us ‘whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” [Matthew 18:18]. We see that we have the capacity literally to reach into the realms of heaven and touch the very hand of God Himself.”

If this is indeed true then the more we pray, and the more people we agree with in prayer, the more we can achieve… with or without God’s help.

The true nature of prayer

I believe that both of the views I have presented here are flawed and result in either prayerlessness or blasphemous egocentricity. Jesus did not pray as a means of getting things done, or of releasing power to heal, but rather as a way of communing with His Father. I use the word ‘communing’ purposefully because prayer is more than communication, it is intimate dialogue with and experience of the Almighty.

We pray because we have a relationship with the triune God. We pray because we want to be in close contact with Him, to tell Him how we feel and think, and to hear from Him. We pray in order to express our belief in Him and our dependence upon Him. We pray because we love Him and know that He loves us.

I have written quite a lot on this in the past, supporting my views with scripture and reason, so I won’t repeat it all here. You can read an edited version of some of my work HERE, HERE, and HERE.

God instructs us to pray to Him because He loves to commune with us, wants us to participate with Him in the affairs of His Kingdom, and because it is good for us to realise our dependence upon Him.

Prayer is a privilege we have as sons and daughters of the Most High. When we pray individually, we express ourselves personally and when we pray as part of a group, we express ourselves corporately. We also pray in order to hear and we pray in order to align ourselves with God’s heart and mind.

What is prayer? Read More »

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Standing together around Jesus

 Standing together around Jesus

If we try to walk alone against a hurricane, it will blow us away. We stand a better chance of keeping our footing if we hold hands with others. However, even the strongest wind will not budge us if we join together around Jesus.

I grew up in the windy city of Port Elizabeth where it blows so often that the pigeons, accustomed to leaning into the wind, fall forward on their beaks when it stops – or so goes the tongue in cheek legend. Physical wind can be destabilising and sometimes lethal, but spiritual winds are no less destructive. In Ephesians 4:14 Paul writes of immature believers who are ‘blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming’.

From time to time, folk request me to write or speak about any number of ‘winds’ blowing into the face of the church. Some of these are obviously ‘ill winds’ and they are easy to identify, but some are not. For instance, Satanism is an unmistakably foul wind, but modern Gnosticism is harder to define yet also noxious.

You might be surprised at some of the things that I regard as malevolent winds blowing into the church. By the way, what makes aberrant teachings so dangerous is that they invariably contain a modicum of truth sufficient to disguise their fatal errors. Here are just some, possibly eyebrow-raising, examples:

  • Calvinism with its fatal confusion of sovereignty with predeterminism – the key assumption that God can only truly be sovereign if He determines all things at all times, and if He does not, then He cannot really be God.
  • Modern Gnosticism that presents a complex form of reincarnation and celestial rankings in the life between earthly lives.
  • Roman Catholicism with its exclusive system of religious orders, rankings, rites, and rituals.
  • Updated dominionism parading under the catchall ‘New Apostolic Reformation’.
  • Extreme Word of Faith’ism together with its bastard child, Hypergrace.
At this point, I need to hold up a hand and say; “Yes I know I am making some radical claims and using complex and loaded language. However, an article like this is just too limiting to develop these ideas. In my TruthTalk podcast Q & A I will elaborate a little, and you are free to email me or comment on this post if you want to take issue with me or seek clarification.”
In this short article, I want to simply make one simple yet bold statement – to stand against the winds of false teaching and practice we need to stand together around the central figure of the Lord Jesus Christ.

In Ephesians chapter 4, Paul makes a series of connected points:

  1. There is one body and one Spirit— just as you were called to one hope when you were called— one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all’ Ephesians 4:4-6.
  2. The ascended Jesus has given to the church, ‘some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ’ Ephesians 4:11-13.
  3. Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work’ Ephesians 4:14-16.

Put in the simplest possible terms – Jesus is the source of truth and the central pillar of the church around which we gather like flesh around the skeleton of a living body. If we centre ourselves on Jesus – what He said, what He did, and who He is – then TOGETHER we will become mature enough to withstand even the strongest winds of deceitful false teaching.

I am always reluctant to write or speak about ill winds because I know that to withstand them we need to know Jesus and the communal strength of His church rather than know about the foulness of the winds.

Focus on Jesus. Be part of His church and benefit from the gifts He has given to us as members of His ‘body’. This is how we stand against even the strongest gales of deception.


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The Westminster Confession through Jesus spectacles

A recent edition of Joy! Magazine published the Short Catechism of the Westminster Confession.

The introduction stated that the Confession ‘has been described as the finest, most Biblical description and definition of Christian life, faith and practice.’ It also stated that ‘it is the duty of the Church to clearly define, defend, proclaim, and teach the whole counsel of God to a world of doubt and confusion.’ The context of this last statement makes it clear that the author believes the Westminster Confession to be the recommended way of presenting the ‘whole counsel of God’.

Bible and glassesThe Westminster Confession (WC) is a Calvinist statement of faith. I realise that statistics can be treacherously misleading, but the best estimates I have read indicate that the Calvinist/Reformed version of the Christian Faith is held by about 30% of the North American church and 15% of the church across the whole world. While less than a quarter of the church believes in the tenets of Calvinism, surely all of the church, Reformed included, believes in the teachings of the Lord Jesus Christ. So, I thought that it would be beneficial to readers to consider how Jesus answered the first three questions of the Shorter WC and to provide some brief personal comment concerning these questions.

  1. What is the chief end of man? The WC answers; ‘Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever. As ‘proof texts’ for the first part of that statement it cites Psalm 86, Isaiah 60:21, Romans 11:36, 1 Corinthians 6:20, 10:31, and Revelation 4:11. No mention of what Jesus said, yet Jesus is the ‘image of the invisible God’ (Colossians 1:15) and the ‘exact representation of his being’ (Hebrews 1:3). Surely what He said should be taken as definitive?

The closest Jesus came to answering the question as phrased in the WC was when a Pharisee asked him what He believed to be the greatest commandment in The Law. Jesus answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’  This is the first and greatest commandment.  And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’   All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:37-40). Simply put, the chief end of man, his primary purpose, is to love God with all that he is and to love others as himself. This is very different to ‘glorify God and enjoy him forever’.

A prominent Calvinist author, John Piper, argues that man’s purpose to glorify God is prescribed by God’s own purpose to glorify himself. In his message ‘Is God for us, or for himself’ Dr. Piper qualifies this by stating that ‘God’s aim and effort to glorify himself is wholly good and without fault of any kind and is very different from human self-exaltation because it is an expression of love’. I would argue that scripture defines God in terms of love, and not glory (1 John 4:8), and that God’s glory is best displayed in His compassion and self-giving concern for an undeserving humanity.

As to the second part of the WC answer, ‘to enjoy him forever’, this can only be true for those who accept the Calvinist teaching on election and believe that they have been preordained to be saved: those who are destined to be eternally separated from God certainly cannot enjoy Him forever!

I have long held that the primary purpose of all people is to know Jesus, to become like Him, and to help others to do likewise; in this way we love God and others.

  1. What rule hath God given to direct us how we may glorify and enjoy him? The WC answers; ‘The Word of God, which is contained in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, is the only rule to direct us how we may glorify and enjoy him.’ Now, if by ‘Word of God’ they mean ‘The Bible’, then the answer to the third question amplifies what is meant here. However, while I agree that the Bible is the written ‘Word of God’, it itself defines the term more specifically for us in John 1:14 where it states that ‘The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth’. The WC teaches that the Word of God is contained in the scriptures’ and I believe that this is true in that Jesus, THE Word of God, is revealed and encountered in and through the Bible. The focus should be on Jesus, the Living Word, as revealed in and through the Bible, the written word.

and question 3:

  1. What do the Scriptures principally teach? The WC answers; ‘The Scriptures principally teach what man is to believe concerning God, and what duty God requires of man.’ Jesus, on the other hand, answered the question very directly when He said to the Pharisees; ‘You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life” (John 5:39-40).

There is an eternity of difference between the Bible as a rule book and the Bible as a Relational book. Old Testament believers could be excused for thinking that the sacred texts were all about rules, regulations and God’s requirements. New Testament believers, on the other hand, can look with clarity into the life of Jesus, as revealed in scripture, and understand that the Bible’s primary purpose is to reveal Jesus so that we might relate to Him both now and forever.

So, there certainly is another way at looking at human purpose as revealed in the scriptures, and I prefer looking at this important matter through Jesus-centred lenses rather than WC glasses.

The Westminster Confession through Jesus spectacles Read More »

About Me

My name is Christopher Peppler and I was born in Cape Town, South Africa in 1947. While working in the financial sector I achieved a number of business qualifications from the Institute of Bankers, Damelin Management School, and The University of the Witwatersrand Business School. After over 20 years as a banker, I followed God’s calling and joined the ministry full time. After becoming a pastor of what is now a quite considerable church, I  earned an undergraduate theological qualification from the Baptist Theological College of Southern Africa and post-graduate degrees from two United States institutions. I was also awarded the Doctor of Theology in Systematic Theology from the University of Zululand in 2000.

Four years before that I established the South African Theological Seminary (SATS), which today is represented in over 70 countries and has more than 2 500 active students enrolled with it. I presently play an role supervising Masters and Doctoral students.

I am a passionate champion of the Christocentric or Christ-centred Principle, an approach to biblical interpretation and theological construction that emphasises the centrality of Jesus

I have been happily married to Patricia since the age of 20, have two children, Lance and Karen, a daughter-in-law Tracey, and granddaughters Jessica and Kirsten. I have now retired from both church and seminary leadership and devote my time to writing, discipling, and the classical guitar.

If you would like to read my testimony to Jesus then click HERE.